Do you know what is the difference between Cleanse and Clean? I don't have a clear idea of when to use one or the other as verbs or nouns, or if there is some key difference I'm not aware of.

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    Have you checked a dictionary? What did the dictionary say? Please report what you have not understood from the dictionary. Jun 27, 2012 at 10:52
  • I don't think "cleanse" is used as a noun.
    – user20934
    Jun 27, 2012 at 11:30
  • I don't think "clean" is used as a noun either.
    – Joel Brown
    Jun 27, 2012 at 12:05
  • "A deep clean" is a phrase I've heard/read, and it is a noun in that sense.
    – JLG
    Jun 27, 2012 at 12:22
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    You can easily look it up in the Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms (p. 151), full view available on Google Books.
    – Alex B.
    Jun 27, 2012 at 15:36

3 Answers 3


They are very similar in meaning, but as a rule, Cleanse has a sense of a more thorough or radical clean. So, for example, I might clean my mug by washing it up, but I might get it cleansed by chemical treatments, boiling water or whatever. It is a more thorough sense of dirt removal — a deep clean, if you want.

So in this term, Ethnic Cleansing is about a rooting out of all aspects of the ethnic group being cleansed. Colonic cleansing is (I am guessing, not ever having had or wanted it) removal of all the colonic gunge, not just a wipe down.

Similarly, you might clear your desk with a cloth, but a cleansing — to remove years of ingrained dirt — would probably involve steam cleaning.

Which to use? It very much depends on the context. Cleansing does have some negative connotations, so some care should be used.

  • Thank you! Watching the dictionary I've had the impression they were equivalent and I guess there was this slight difference in meaning. I didn't know the figurative meaning though. Now all is clear :-) Jun 27, 2012 at 19:54

'Cleanse' is an old word, going back to OE. 'Clean' is a newer word that appeared in the 15th century and largely displaced 'cleanse'.

The result of the displacement is that 'clean' is now used in literal applications of removing dirt, and 'cleanse' has retreated into figurative use, such as the ethnic cleansing or spiritual cleansing that Matt mentions in comments.


These two words are really equivalent.

I think you'll find that clean is used more commonly. For the most part, cleanse would be considered a little more old fashioned or technical, depending on the context.

Edit: From reference.dictionary.com:

Clean, cleanse refer to removing dirt or impurities. To clean is the general word with no implication of method or means: to clean windows, a kitchen, streets. Cleanse is especially used of thorough cleaning by chemical or other technical process; figuratively it applies to moral or spiritual purification: to cleanse parts of machinery; to cleanse one's soul of guilt.

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    There are situations I can think of where they're not equivalent. Nobody goes for a colon clean, for example. No one goes for a spiritual cleaning, either. The words are not really equivalent. Jun 27, 2012 at 10:56
  • @MattЭллен - The fact that certain expressions are not commonly used doesn't mean that the words aren't virtually identical in meaning. The two examples you cited where cleanse is more common than clean both fit in with exactly what I said about "cleanse" being more old fashioned or technical. A quasi-medical procedure would be a technical application. I frankly don't know what a "spiritual cleansing" is, but I suppose it would be a good candidate for an either an old fashioned or a technical application, depending on what one means by spiritual.
    – Joel Brown
    Jun 27, 2012 at 11:18
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    It's not that they're not commonly used. They are not used. At all. You wouldn't say "the ethnic cleaning that took place in WWII was terrible". There is no such thing as ethnic cleaning or colon cleaning or spiritual cleaning, or window cleansing or facial cleaner. You don't cleanse out your desk or cleanse up you language. The words are not really equivalent. Jun 27, 2012 at 11:24
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    A laundry list of idioms that don't exist is not proof that two words don't mean the same thing. If they are different, in what ways, precisely are they different? You have asserted that they are used in different idioms - fine. So why, do you suppose, that this is true? I've offered my view of the subtle way in which these words are different. What can you contribute to the answer?
    – Joel Brown
    Jun 27, 2012 at 12:04
  • I'm not answering this question. It is general reference (as I allude to in my comment on the question). Answering this question validates it. I do not want to do that. Idioms count towards the meaning of the words. Jun 27, 2012 at 12:17

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